Judge Has Ruled, School District’s Lawsuit Against Their Attorneys For Alleged Legal Malpractice Must Go To Arbitration
The June 5 ruling by Judge Richard Strauss sided with Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz, the law firm hired by San Ysidro to defend the district in a breach-of-contract lawsuit. The judge agreed with the firm that there is an arbitration agreement in place with the district that covers the dispute, and that San Ysidro is bound by the agreement.
The decision puts the suit on hold, and gives San Ysidro and the firm two years to settle the difference out of court.
Lawyer Bryan Vess, who filed the lawsuit March 17, had argued the arbitration provision could not be enforced because of when the firm’s retainer agreement was signed.
Vess said the next step is for both sides to agree on the selection of a private arbitrator, usually a retired judge.
“We would like to have the arbitration wrapped up in a year,” he said.
The school district is suing the law firm, alleging professional negligence. School officials say Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz withheld a proposed settlement in the lawsuit filed by solar-energy contractor EcoBusiness Alliance. The district hired the contractor in 2008 to build solar-energy systems on campuses, but the district nixed the deal in 2011. EcoBusiness sued San Ysidro for breach of contract. The school district lost the case and was hit with a $12 million judgment.
The district’s malpractice suit says the firm and partner Dan Shinoff wrongly told school officials the solar company was unwilling to settle and there was no other choice but to go to trial. The lawsuit accuses Shinoff of avoiding a settlement to fraudulently draw out the case and drive up legal fees. The law firm denies that. The district, which has struggled financially, spent about $1.3 million on legal bills.
School administrators are seeking to recover that money, as well as the attorney’s fees the district was ordered to pay in the solar case. In all, Vess said the amount totals about $3 million.
According to Vess, trustees testified under oath that they were unaware of specific developments in the solar case, such as settlement offers. The law firm denied it withheld information from its clients, and released a February 2013 letter to the district that laid out the details of a settlement offer at that time.
The $12 million judgment was set aside earlier this year when San Ysidro revived the solar contract with some updated terms.
Shortly after the malpractice suit was filed, Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz, which represents a majority of the San Diego County’s school districts, was suspended by the county Office of Education from taking on new assignments until the suit and state bar complaint were resolved. The Office of Education connects districts with lawyers for certain liability cases through an agency called the San Diego County Schools Risk Management Joint Powers Authority.
County Office of Education spokeswoman Music Watson said June 19 that the suspension was no longer in effect. When the agency’s executive committee met in May, members voted to overturn the decision.
“The JPA executive committee directed the JPA staff to reinstate the firm and put the firm back in rotation,” she said.
The agency is governed by a board of administrators from the districts that use its services.
This post was written by Christine Huard and appeared in the in
San Diego Tribune online version.
Ball and Bonholtzer – Legal Malpractice Lawsuit Trial Attorneys – California